Don't fear the reefer...

I wen to a "frag swap" the other day.

Yeah, a frag swap. 

A fun affair; sort of a time-honored reef-keeping tradition. It's the first one I'd been to this side of the pandemic...Actually, the first one I'd been to in a few years...Since I'm in the process of creating my next reef aquarium, the timing couldn't begetter. A chance to catch up with old friends, see some hot corals, and just geek out a bit.

It was a really good time. And the discussions were fun. A little good-natured teasing from my reefing friends about my love of "twigs and leaves and brown water", of course!

Like many of you, I'm not just a strictly freshwater kind of aquarist. Yeah, you know me as the "guy who loves leaf litter", but my hobby experience is way more than just that. I've been keeping fishes literally since I could walk, and during that time, I've run the gamut from freshwater to brackish, to everything in between.

And yeah, saltwater...Specifically, reef aquariums.

Yup, Google me prior to about 2015, and almost every reference to my name is from the reef side of the hobby. Author, lecturer, geek...all of it about reef aquariums. For about 1986 to about 2015, that was my main jam. I was obsessed with corals and reef aquariums and fishes. I co-owned a coral propagation company.

Now sure, during that time, I did a lot of work with this blackwater, botanical-style stuff, and natural freshwater aquarium in general, but reef aquariums and corals were my thing.


Where am I going with this? Trying to brag about my reefkeeing "pedigree?" No, not really...What I'm trying to get across is that it's completely possible to do both.

And do both well.

And you should. If you are up to it.

I have fielded a number of questions from our community lately about getting into reef tanks, and I thought that this summer day might be a good time to touch on that subject a bit...

As I mentioned at the outset, I'm knee-deep in planning my next reef tank, which I hope to have up this Fall. I've been re-connecting with my reef community friends and diving back into the "culture" with a different mindset than I had before. A hobbyist's mindset. A lot more humility...I'm a bit rusty on the latest and greatest...And it's pretty cool. And it's making me a better botanical-style aquarium keeper, too!

Now, I know, having spent my life in both the freshwater and saltwater worlds, that they are remarkably different from each other in many ways, yet an argument could easily be made that there are absolute "crossover skills" that can benefit you on both sides of the "salinity line!"

There are common mindsets and philosophies which, if you have acquired in the freshwater world, will serve you brilliantly in the reef world. Conversely, if you have a poor understanding of the freshwater world and some bad habits, and act impulsively, those will predictably hobble you in the reef-keeping world, too. 

And having been active at high levels on both sides, I can look at things objectively.

To be quite honest, one observation I've made in my freshwater travels and interactions with fellow hobbyists has me scratching my head:

I've noticed a sort of "fear" that the freshwater community has for reef-keeping. A tremendous amount of insecurity, if you will, about the technology, the practices, the environmental parameters, etc. And that fear keeps a lot of freshwater hobbyists from doing little more than simply looking at reef tanks.

It's absurd.

You have nothing...NOTHING to fear. 

Of course, I have to qualify it. You have nothing to fear IF: You prepare yourself and are honest about what you want. If you have correct expectations. There's nothing philosophically different about reef-keeping than what I've been beating you over the head with about botanical-style tanks for the last 6 years. You're simply applying it to a different "medium."

Keeping a reef tank is not "hard"- it simply requires you to understand some different types of environmental parameters, ecological considerations, and how to set up, optimize, and manage the appropriate equipment to accomplish what needs to be done to help corals and reef fishes thrive.

Yeah, it's no different than what we do here.

Now, I realize that any time someone writes a typical "You should do saltwater!" article, it's filled with a lot of sugary "pious platitudes" and a watered-down set of expectations of what reef keeping is, and how you can use that gear from your freshwater tank in your reef, blah, blah, blah. Well, likely you cannot, but the reality is, you can certainly keep a successful reef tank if you're successful in freshwater.

I mean, after all, the idea IS to encourage you to try it. However, downplaying the real challenges and expenses in an effort to "cheerlead" you into a reef tank is stupid.

At the risk of writing yet another syrupy plea to do the same, I'll give you some of the encouragement you need. However, I will also give you an up-front ass-kicking as only I can. And if it discourages a few of you from jumping into the reef game with an unrealistic set of expectations and the wrong attitude, then I will have succeeded, too.


DON'T go into the reef-keeping side of the hobby if you're not willing to do a little research. Don't go into it if you're trying to do it "on the cheap", figuring you'll start out with some cheap, junky, barely-sufficient gear and tell yourself that you'll get what you need "later." You will fail and hate reef keeping before "later" ever happens. That's virtually a fact, a high percentage of the time. I know, it sounds harsh, and that there's always "That guy in Tulsa that did a 'reef tank' with his old 40 breeder, an Eheim 2015, and a couple of powerheads", or whatever. But that's him. 

Even a broken clock is correct twice a day, right?

If you want to succeed in reef keeping, just like any part of the aquarium hobby, you need to get proper equipment. Cobbled-together shit just buys you time. 

There is a difference between "smart and inexpensive" and "dumb and cheap." There is no need to rush. Take your time, research, and accumulate the correct stuff .

I'd tell you the same damn thing before jumping into the botanical-style aquarium game, too. In fact, I have many times right here over the years!

Ouch, painful...brutal. I know.

There's more.

DON'T think about reef-keeping if you don't want to dedicate yourself to observation and looking critically at your animals, and understanding their needs, and providing for them.  Yes, it's fundamental to all aquariums, but really critical in reef keeping. Most reefers who fail, fail because they don't make the effort to understand what's happening in their aquariums. Now, look, you don't have to be a lab tech to keep a reef tank, but you need to understand some of the basics of saltwater chemistry and how stuff like calcium, magnesium, etc. are important to corals.

If you're not willing to educate yourself on basic reef aquarium chemistry, (which is really NOT that complicated, btw) then just don't start a reef tank.

UNDERSTAND that you will have to contend with stuff like algae, fish diseases, coral pests, etc. That's part of any tank. You might have to "unlearn" stuff you knew in the freshwater world. You will have to think about the interactions between corals and how you can't have all sorts of stuff in a small tank.

You'll have to grasp stuff that seems really counter-intuitive or just weird. Like, you don't NEED to have a substrate in your tank. Or, understanding that you don't need to "acclimate" corals. They're literally "self acclimating" biologically. It's hard to get your head around that. It was for me. Stuff like that even eludes some reefers, but it's an example of the kind of stuff you need to be open-minded to.

Why not be open-minded from the start?

Most important of all, though, is to have realistic expectations. And those are best acquired by educating yourself about what's really going on in the reef aquarium world. 


There are so many misunderstandings about reef aquariums, even within the reeking community, that I can see how it can be intimidating or just plain confusing to anyone. There are a few generalized "myths" out there that really serve to "poison the well" about reefs, however. And we should puncture them for you.  

Let's take a second or two to do that. Here goes. No sugar shit coating here...

Oh, wait...One thing that is NOT a myth: The reef keeping hobby is expensive. Equipment, corals, fishes...they're all pretty pricy. That's fact, and something we can discuss at a later time. I won't sugar coat it. Some stuff is over-priced, like some coral frags. Some stuff, like technology or maricultured coral colonies, are  appropriately expensive. It just is. No getting around that. Yes, there are many ways to save money- buying used equipment, DIY, trading corals, etc....And yeah, reef hobbyists are as generous as any freshwater hobbyist when it comes to that kind of stuff...A pleasant surprise for many of you, no doubt!

And that helps.

But you need to be realistic and understand that reefkeeping is pricy.

So, let's start attacking some myths here:

MYTH 1: You have to be a marine biologist to understand how to keep a reef tank.

This is such utter bullshit that I'm just going to whack you upside the head with it right out of the gate. Be serious. You understand the nitrogen cycle? Okay, good. You're halfway there. Oh, sure, you need to learn a bunch of other stuff, like the calcium/alkalinity dynamic, an understanding of lighting, flow, nutrients, and animal compatibility....

Like, is that so damn hard?

Of course not. I couldn't tell you jack shit about how to keep a planted aquarium, with all of the "estimative index" and nutrient requirement mumbo-jumbo. Ask almost any reefer, and they're far more intimidated about a planted freshwater tanks than they are about even the most demanding "SPS" reef tank.

And yeah, I DO know a lot of barely-competent aquarists who keep decent reef tanks, believe it or not. It's just not that hard.

You can easily, EASILY learn all of this stuff. Just spend a little time on that internet thing and visit a few key sites, like Reef Builders, Reef2Reef,, etc, or talk to a successful reefer, and you can find out pretty much all you need to know to be a successful reefer. Yes, you need to weed through the misinformation that abounds on many forums, but how is that any different than freshwater?

It's not.


MYTH 2: You need a lot of very expensive gear to run a successful reef tank.

Here we go again...

Sure, I'd be lying to you if I said that it was super cheap to properly outfit a reef aquarium. Over the years, I've outfitted a number of my tanks with equipment that collectively cost more than my first new car did Yet, you don't have to have every single fancy piece of gear out there, and you don't HAVE to buy the ultimate, top-of-the-line stuff, either.

You just have to purchase good stuff.

And some of todays's "all-in-one" tanks have a good percentage of what you need built right in. The amount of technology and gear you need to incorporate into your tank is largely driven by what kinds of animals you intend to keep, what size aquarium you are keeping, and what kind of budget you have.  It can totally vary, and there is no "cookie cutter" formula to having exactly the right equipment for every single tank. Each one is sort of a "custom solution."

Get your head around that and you'll be good.

How is this different from equipping a "Nature Aquarium", "high tech" planted tank, or a Discus tank, with all those glass pipes, canister filters, etc? 

It really isn't. You can spend a ton on both- if that's your thing.


But it doesn't have to be. 

My advice is to study what you need. Study the market. And don't buy cheap junk. Same thing I tell you in freshwater, right? Stop spending money on cobbled-together aquariums with low-grade crap. It doesn't serve you in freshwater, and it will just frustrate the shit out of you in the reef world. Yes, you don't have to buy the top-of-the-line stuff, but you don't need to buy cheap knock-off junk, either.

That's a complete waste of money IMHO.

MYTH 3: You need all sorts of test equipment to be successful.

Well, it's kind of a myth.

TBH, if you're going to keep corals, which require calcium, magnesium, etc., then you need to be able to test your tank water for it. These elements are important for coral health and growth, and you can't "wing it" and just assume that you have enough of these compounds present in your tank. That being said, you don't need to test for every single factor in a reef.

To me, essential tests would be Ammonia, nitrite, phosphate, alkalinity, magnesium, calcium. Not all that much different than a planted freshwater tank, in terms of the number of parameters you want to keep an eye on.

Sure, you could send you water samples to one of the companies which offer 40-parameter ICP-OES analysis and know how much Vanadium and Molybneium are present in your tank, but you don't have to. A lot of people enjoy that stuff, and that's okay. These advanced tests are useful for diagnosing problems and figuring out baseline parameters when your reef is firing. But they're not a "mandatory for success" thing.

One word of advice- knowing the specific gravity ("saltiness" in the most simple vernacular) of your tank is really important. Just don't wast your money on those cheap "swing arm" hydrometers to check specific gravity of your water. They're wildly inaccurate and prone to failure. Save and spring for an $80-$120USD digital refractometer. You put a few drops of water in it, and in seconds,  you get a digital readout that's stupidly accurate, in either ppt or SG.

And get high quality test kits, or handheld meters if you can afford them. yes, the stuff adds up, but having accurate information at your fingertips is critical to a successful reef tank experience.

"Situational awareness"- knowing what's going on in your reef tank, is really important, as with any aquarium. There is no substitute for observation, of course, but having a working knowledge of your aquarium's environment will keep you on top of things. And, the information you glean from regular testing and observation will continue to help grow the body of knowledge in reef aquarium practice.

MYTH 4: You need a large aquarium to have a reef tank.

Another one of those "partial true" ideas you hear tossed around by reefers, the idea of keeping so-called "nano" reef tanks is appealing to many. And yeah, there are the arguments about it being more challenging to maintain stability in a small body of water. And the counter-argument that it's far easier and less expensive to outfit a 15-20 gallon tank than a 75-225 gallon one. You can go all over the place with this one.

So, here's my thinking on this: It is absolutely, entirely possible to keep some corals in a small aquarium, if you are on top of maintenance, top-off, and are able to provide for their needs adequately (flow, lighting, etc.). My main argument against tiny reef tanks is that there are a few challenges associated with environmental control in them. The bigger argument against small tanks is that they play against our psychology.

Yeah, psychology.

We, as hobbyists, love to collect corals and fishes...and a small tank simply doesn't give you that ability to add "a little of this or a little of that" without heavy consideration. I mean, you can't in a large tank, either- but you can get away with more...The chemical competition between corals (allelopathy) is very real and some will be more assertive than others.

And it can be a real problem in a small tank, with limited "real estate", when someone pulls the "eminent domain" thing!

I'm not saying NOT to start with a small tank. I'm just saying that you should understand and accept the limitations that smaller tanks impose upon our desires. Its more about what you can't do with a small tank than what you can. That doesn't have to be a "negative..." It just needs to be understood.

I like medium to large tanks for reef aquariums for the reasons stated above and tons more. However, you absolutely do NOT need a huge tank to have a reef aquarium. Get yourself a 50-75 US gallon tank, and you're golden, IMHO.

BONUS CONSIDERATION: Do you want a "reef aquarium" or a "coral aquarium?"

WTF? Yeah. There is a distinction here. A "reef aquarium" is one in which you're tying to recreate the reef environment, with a diverse assemblage of corals, fishes, live rock, sand, macro algae, etc. A "coral aquarium" is just that- an aquarium which specializes in corals, virtually at the expense of everything else.

The biological diversity of the tank is created by the coral tissues and any associated biotia they bring along for the ride. No sand, no excess live rock", etc. Just corals, fishes, and the environment which suits their health and growth.

It's an important question to ask yourself, and it's something that you probably haven't thought about all that much, right?

This little rant is just a start. A very basic one. However, I think it might be one of the most honest and possibly even brutal breakdowns of the reef-keeping game. There are so many more topics to cover that it's not even funny. But this is a start. And I suppose I'll be documenting my new reef tank's journey when it gets underway. It might encourage- or discourage-you from doing your own. 

Most of all, I hope it makes you think. Stop. Get pissed at me. And look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you really want to do a reef tank.

Look, keeping corals and reef tanks IS fun and rewarding. You just need to familiarize yourself with their needs and requirements. It's absolutely no different in that regard than any other aspect of the aquarium hobby. Education, common sense, discipline, and patience go a long way.

The one, overarching thing about this is that you don't need to be afraid to make that jump. You just need to look at the realities of this type of tank, just as you would a botanical-style tank, Mbuna tank, planted tank, or Discus aquarium. You just need to learn.

And then, DO.

Stay bold. Stay informed. Stay critical. Stay excited. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment